Voiceover Overload

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Along with nearly half the critics in the 2005 B&C Poll (page 14), I've already found a couple of favorites among this fall's crop of new shows: UPN's Everybody Hates Chris and NBC's My Name Is Earl. Both comedies are laugh-out-loud funny.

Still, I'm bothered by a storytelling device that's shared by both of those two promising shows—and by lots of other new programming this fall, judging from the pilots: voiceover narrative.

In Everybody Hates Chris, comedian Chris Rock provides the running off-screen commentary in this show about his Brooklyn school days. Jason Lee, who plays the title character in My Name Is Earl, does likewise with voiceover embellishments to the tale of a redneck petty thief trying to right the wrongs of his loser life.

At least a half dozen other new shows are using voiceover. It's the 2005-06 season cliché. Why? Maybe because Desperate Housewives did so well using the deceased Mary Alice's narration to lead viewers down the tawdry path of Wisteria Lane. Obviously, a lot of producers or development executives think some of the show's Nielsen magic dust will rub off on them if they also use a narrator to guide viewers from A to B. I won't even bother making the obligatory “desperate” joke here.

Of course, the success of Sex and the City, featuring Carrie Bradshaw's write-out-loud musings, was no doubt a major influence, too. If it worked for a man-hunting Manhattan single in an HBO comedy, why can't it work on a show like ABC's new thirtysomething-lite drama, What About Brian, where Barry Watson as Brian delivers a running narration of his tortured love for his best friend's fiancée? Sarah Jessica Parker did it on Sex. Why can't another perky bottle-blonde, Heather Graham, do it in ABC's Emily's Reasons Why Not, where the star is on a perpetual hunt for her own Mr. Big?

After a while, all this voiceover narration goes beyond wearisome into the realm of buzz kill. Check out UPN's Sex, Love and Secrets: It's a fun, trashy soap—until the narrator intrudes, doing a send-up of a nature-documentary commentary, describing the mating habits of the bed-hopping cast. The off-screen narrator in Fox's own gimmicky soap, Reunion, is nearly as obtrusive.

A little voiceover goes a long way. I know that TV pilots need to do a lot of exposition, but going the narrator route can signal just plain laziness and lack of imagination. Viewers faced with too much of it are likely to surf elsewhere.

The writers behind these narration-driven pilots would do well to rent the 2002 movie Adaptation. In the screenplay-within-a-screenplay movie, Nicholas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, who actually wrote the film. Struggling with writer's block, Cage/Kaufman goes to a screenwriting seminar, run by the legendary Robert McKee. Kaufman sits silent in the lecture hall as we hear his voiceover narration of what a pathetic loser he is for being in that screenwriter guru's seminar: “Is it my weakness, my ultimate lack of conviction that brings me here? Easy answers used to shortcut yourself to success. And here I am because my jump in the abysmal well—isn't that just a risk one takes when attempting something new? I should leave right now. I'll start over. I need to face this project head on and…”

McKee (played by Brian Cox) at the lectern cuts in: “And God help you if you use voiceover in you work, my friends. God help you. That's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voiceover narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

Anybody looking to top next year's B&C Poll of the critics would be wise to keep that in mind.

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bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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